Why Do We Laugh At What’s Not Funny And Why Don’t We Debate?


Put on your lab coats and bust out those beakers. We’re about to get real scientific.

A Florida State University (What up, ‘noles!) psychology professor named Joyce Ehrlinger recently authored a paper called, “Polite But Not Honest: How an Absence of Negative Social Feedback Contributes to Overconfidence.” In one aspect of her research, she studied the effects of — and reasons why — people nod and smile instead of debate and why they laugh at jokes that aren’t funny. (She could have called her paper, “That Awkward Moment When: A Researched Report.”)

Anyone who’s ever attended an open mic knows that comedians won’t laugh at someone who isn’t funny, but elsewhere it’s perfectly acceptable to throw some pity chuckles at a joke that isn’t remotely up to snuff. While arguing on the internet is par for the course, in group settings, we’ll do anything to avoid confrontation. Social norms, Ehrlinger argues, dictate that we avoid embarrassing others — lest we fall victim to “second-hand embarrassment.”

In one part of their research, the psychologists recreated awkward social situations using people with strong opposing views. They asked one person to try and persuade the others of his political view — which the others in the group might find “reprehensible.” The researchers hypothesized that rather than argue, the listeners would just succumb to awkward silence.

Typically the targets responded by smiling or vaguely agreeing, which most likely reduced the potential for conflict, but left the political persuaders with inaccurate, overconfident perceptions of their debating skills.

In a second situation, she asked participants to try and be funny and then gauged their confidence based on the other peoples’ default laughter. The jokesters overestimated their comedic abilities and failed to realize those laughing were just being polite.

Ehrlinger’s conclusion?

There are ways in which overconfidence is dangerous, and it might be important to set aside politeness in service of helping people avoid the perils of overconfidence.

Oh jeez. How many of us have done the exact same thing in a similar situation? It’s a daily occurrence.

There’s two things at play here — one is the awkward conversation and the other is laughing at unfunny jokes.

Let’s start with not wanting to debate. I’m a little more unfamiliar with this concept because I generally always want to debate. I don’t take ardently discussing an issue personally unless the attacks become insults. If we can keep to the topic at hand, I am happy to debate all day every day and still remain friends. “Friends” doesn’t mean coddling or blindly agreeing. It’s healthy — like exercise for the brain. (Though I have had people think I “hate” them after an argument when I just see it as a mild discussion. Hm.)

I debate with fellow TC editor Chelsea Fagan all the time and I adore her. When she tries to apologize, I tell her that sometimes I’m not 100 percent sure why I believe something until I’ve hashed it out while defending my point to her. Arguing with Chelsea has led to some of my best writing. And we still get drunk on boats together.

But most people will do anything to avoid arguing. It’s unpleasant and serious. It can ruin a good time if, over drinks, someone mentions how they oppose universal health care and you, because you disagree, decide to engage them. Then, you come off confrontational and weird. But like Ehrlinger, I don’t know if that’s helpful. Wouldn’t getting information about why someone might feel differently than you be beneficial?

When I was doing my 100 Interviews project, I met with two people who I vehemently disagreed with politically: a woman who pickets outside abortion clinics and a gay Republican. Both interviews helped inform and strengthen my opinions.

The second part of Ehrlinger’s research is laughing at what isn’t funny and thereby bestowing confidence on people where it is not due. At an open mic, not laughing is appropriate because presumably the comedian is trying to work out what is legit funny and what isn’t. It’s almost unhelpful to politely laugh. But in the real world, we do this all the time.

Does this overblown confidence automatically lead to wasted time or people who can’t sing auditioning for American Idol every season? What about the subjectivity of humor? Maybe what someone else laughs at politely, another person legitimately finds funny. Either way, everyone has laughed at something that wasn’t funny to make someone else feel better. This seems okay in a social context. What about nervous laughter? Where you laugh at something because you’re uncomfortable and not because you actually find it funny? Is that being misinterpreted as validation?

I guess I’m more hung up on the debating part of Ehrlinger’s research. We should debate more. We should feel free to ask someone why they feel the way they do. Opinions aren’t sacrosanct. They’re beliefs, ideally rooted in fact. You should be able to defend them without wigging out.

It’s not polite, but at least it’ll make for more interesting dinner table conversation. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all learn something from each other. Or about ourselves.

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image – Cinnamon Studios